History’s Rebel Girls – Martha Gellhorn

Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn has been hailed as one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. During her long career, Gellhorn covered almost all major conflicts of the era, from the Spanish Civil War to World War II, from Vietnam to the US invasion of Panama.

Born in 1909 in St. Louis Missouri, Gellhorn was raised by liberal parents who helped to found a co-educational school based on equal treatment of students regardless of their gender. Her mother Edna was a suffragette and social reformer who would take her daughter to rallies and protests.

Gellhorn dropped out of college in 1927 in order to pursue her career as a journalist, writing for the New Republic. She soon moved to Paris where she wrote for various publications and also joined the United Press Bureau. Back in the US in the early 1930s, she documented the impact of the Great Depression as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Her collection of short stories, The Trouble I’ve Seen published in 1936, is a reflection of that experience.

martha gellhorn

In 1937 Gellhorn, like so many of her writing compatriots, was compelled to go to Spain. Armed with nothing but a knapsack and $50, she reported on the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s Weekly. She wasn’t the only female war correspondent at the time, photo journalist Gerda Taro for example was also working in Spain but didn’t escape the conflict unscathed like Gellhorn.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Gellhorn used her reporting skills to document the Blitz in London, the D-Day landings and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. Initially being denied official press accreditation by the British government in 1944, Gellhorn hid on a hospital ship crossing the English channel to France and disguised herself as a stretcher bearer when the ship landed at Normandy. She was the only female present at the D-Day landings and the first female journalist to cover the story first hand.

second world war
Gellhorn in Italy with Indian soldiers of the British Army on the 5th Army’s Cassino front, WWII.

After World War II, Gellhorn adopted a son who she raised largely on her own. She became very critical of American foreign policy and preferred to settle outside of the US, moving from Cuba, Italy, Mexico and Kenya to finally settle in the UK.

In 1966 Gellhorn covered the war in Vietnam and continued to travel extensively throughout the 1970s and 80s, writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Despite reporting on the United States invasion of Panama at the age of 81, Gellhorn declined to go to Bosnia after war broke out in the region in 1992. Instead she went to Brazil to write about the murder of street children.

Gellhorn was married three times, all three marriages ended in divorce. Reportedly she wasn’t cut out for married life and found it too boring. She resented the public attention paid to her second marriage to writer Ernest Hemingway from 1940 to 1945 and questioned, ‘Why should I be a footnote to somebody else’s life?’

martha gellhorn

In her later life, her London apartment served as a meeting point for writers and foreign correspondents. An avid chain smoker, Gellhorn drank and ate at her pleasure, being bored with ‘all that health stuff’. Never one to mince her words, she once stopped an interview saying ‘This conversation is so boring I think I’m going to faint.’

Plagued by ill health and suffering from cancer, Martha Gellhorn took her own life in 1998. Beside her legacy as a journalist, Gellhorn authored 5 novels, 14 novellas and 2 collections of short stories. If you’re interested in finding out more about her, I’d recommend starting with her book Travels with myself and another. Five journeys from hell, a travel journal and memoir written with a lot of dark humour, political incorrectness and a pragmatic sense of survival.

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